After 211 days, Steven Stamkos is back. The Tampa Bay Lightning captain is officially in the lineup for Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, making his first appearance since February 25. After continually reiterating that Stamkos’ timeline to return was indefinite, head coach Jon Cooper and his team suddenly have their superstar back with a chance to take a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars.
Stamkos makes his 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs debut nearly two months after the postseason began, a feat only made possible by his team’s ability to reach the Cup Final. Stamkos suffered a core injury in late February that required surgery. While he was initially given a six-to-eight week timeline, core surgery rehab often exceeds expectations. Yet, many still hoped that Stamkos would be ready for the beginning of the postseason. Cooper answered questions about Stamkos’ status throughout the playoffs, speaking about his hard work and dedication, but always stopped short of stating any expectation for when he might return. Only in the last week or so with Stamkos skating and occasionally participating in practice, did it finally seem like a Stamkos return was less puffery and more possibility. He finally makes his return on Wednesday follow not six-to-eight, but 30 weeks after his initial injury.
While Stamkos’ return to the lineup alone will be a boost for the team’s energy and morale, expectations of his actual contribution should remain low. Stamkos will likely show the same rust as others did when first entering the bubble, if not worse. He also took line rushes prior to the game with Lightning fourth-liners Cedric Paquette and Patrick Marron, indicating that he exposure may be limited in his debut. On top of all that, it worth remembering that Stamkos was a key contributor to Tampa’s first-round collapse last year, posting a -8 in a four-game sweep against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and that his career points per game fall well below his career pace in the regular season. Stamkos’ return is inspiring and makes for a good story, but the Bolts are not going to run away with the Stanley Cup now that the captain has returned. A hard-fought series with the Stars still awaits.